That Backhanded Twist

I WAS sitting, perfectly happy, the other day when the Youngest of my Friends burst in upon me.

‘I say!’ he began, going straight to the point, as his way is. ‘Don’t you think it was splendid — what Michelangelo said about the angel?’

‘What angel?’ I inquired, looking up from my writing.

‘Why, when he said, “There’s an angel in that stone.” All he had to do then was to chip away the rest of the stone to prove it. He hit upon a big thing there. We’ve only got to apply it —’

’I see. If there’s a colored party in the woodpile we’ve only to carry away the wood — ‘

‘ Exactly. Look how far-reaching the principle is, and what a wonderful backhanded twist it gives to everything. Think — of an explosion in a powder-factory, for instance.’

I laid down my pen.

‘Why should I? The idea is n’t altogether pleasant. There’s a powderfactory only two doors up the street, and if — ‘

‘That’s what I say. If it should go off, there you’d be, listening to one of Beethoven’s symphonies.’

‘In Heaven, you mean?’

‘No chance! Here on earth. The explosion would be Michelangelo’s block, only made out of noise. A block of noise — understand? ‘

‘I hardly think I do.’

‘But you must. The noise would contain all the notes in the scale, every possible vibration. If you could silence some of them, leaving only what was needed for a particular tone, say G — yes, say G, with certain other tones reduced almost to nothing, then you’d have Gas sounded on the trombones, for instance. With different soft tones — different harmonics, that is — you’d have it on the violins, or flutes. Music is made out of the silence you put into it — out of the rests, so to speak.’

‘Not always,’ I objected. ‘You ought to hear the young lady on the floor above when she begins to practise. But I’ve heard something of the sort you mention about the harmonics, though I don’t seem to remember any Beethoven symphony that’s all G sounded on the trombones.'

‘ Of course not. When you get enough of G you silence the other vibrations, and go on to H.’

‘Not much you don’t!’

‘ You know what I mean — the next tone, whatever you call it. I’m not a musician. Then there’s painting.’

‘Granted, both points, without argument. And I suppose you’re going to say that a painting is made by taking a rainbow — ‘

‘No; pure white light. In a rainbow the colors are already separated. But you take white light and darken what you don’t want of it, in spots, and there you are.’

‘And writing?’

‘That’s easy.'

‘It is n’t.’

‘I mean it’s easy to explain. You have the dictionary, and you drop all words but one—that’s your start. Then you drop all but another, and so on. Just think of it! Your next book is already in existence in the form of language in general. All you’ll have to do when you come to write it is to delete the unnecessary words.’

‘You talk the way my publisher sometimes does,’I sighed. ‘But look here. I think your theory is dangerous.’

‘How so?’

‘Because there’s no way of stopping, once you begin to apply it. If my next book is already in existence, then everything is already in existence. If there’s no difference between an explosion and a symphony except for what’s left out, then there’s no difference anywhere excepting — ‘

‘Now you’re saying something even bigger than you realize,’ my Young Friend interrupted, gloatingly. ‘You’re dead right. Matter is continuous, and we only separate it into bits because we’re deaf, dumb, and blind except in five little spots that we call the five senses. If we had sense everywhere — ‘

‘Nonsense! You’ve been reading Bergson.’

‘ — If we had sense everywhere we’d be conscious of no break between this table and that chair. There is something everywhere. We can call it God if you like—’

‘Now you’ve been reading Spinoza.’

‘No matter,’ he persisted, growing very serious. ‘All those old philosophers say the same thing, because there’s only one thing to say. We can call it God. When He made creation, what He really did was to eliminate Himself in places, and put in what was not God — what you might call the Devil —’

‘You think I owe my individuality to the Devil that is in me?’

‘You’ve hit it.’

‘Then look out before I hit something else. When you came in I had an idea — or all ideas, as you would kindly put it. For that’s what writing is made out of — ideas, not words. And I was engaged — rather successfully, I thought — in eliminating those which were superfluous to my purpose. While now — ‘

He ducked and made for the door, grinning good-naturedly. But upon the threshold he paused.

‘When it comes to eliminating ideas,’ he shot back over his shoulder, ‘ I’d be careful, old man, if I were you, and not let the process get away from me.’